Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. – Deut 1:39
In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke to the children of Israel and began to recount to them what had happened among and to them for the past 40 years in the desert. In this, he gives us an important clue to understanding the doctrine of accountability. He mentions the children, of whom he says ‘have no knowledge of good and evil.’
Isaiah also mentioned something like this in Isaiah 7:
before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good… – Isa 7:16
The question I would like to bring up here is: Is there an age of accountability? In other words, is there a time when people become responsible for their sins, and is there a time before that when they are not?
The two passages I have mentioned both speak of children who have no knowledge of evil or of good, with the implication that they will one day possess that knowledge. This is reminiscent of Adam and Eve, who ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in order to obtain that knowledge. Apparently Adam and Eve were like these children; they didn’t know evil, nor did they know good. That’s hard to understand because everything around them was good. God had made everything and saw that it was good. But it must be that since Adam and Eve did not know evil, that the good around them could not be understood as good, even though it was very good. It was not until they committed evil that they understood both good and evil.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”— Gen 3:22
Children are just the same as Adam and Eve were before they sinned. They have no knowledge of good and evil, that is, for a certain time. Isaiah says, “before the child knows to refuse the evil, and choose the good.” This implies that one day the child will indeed be able refuse the evil, and choose the good. This is referred to as the age of accountability.
Of course, the bible does not give a particular age that this happens, because it happens at different times for different people, and for some people it never happens at all (the mentally handicap, for example). And it does not happen with loud fanfare, but in a moment, as it did for Adam and Eve. It happens when the mind is finally developed enough for the child to truly understand what is right, and what is wrong, and to possess that knowledge within themselves (not just because their parents told them). It is at this time that the child reaches the age of accountability. It is at this time that God holds them responsible for the sins they commit.
Truly every child is a sinner from the youngest age. David even said:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,And in sin my mother conceived me. – Ps 51:5
And we don’t need divine revelation to understand this, for we see children produce sinful acts everyday in abundance. Children lie and hit and take, etc, etc. Yet we need to understand that although it is true that we inherited a sinful nature from Adam & Eve, the sin that we commit is not held against us until we have knowledge of what is right and wrong. This is exactly what Paul teaches in the book of Romans.
I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. – Romans 7:9
Paul said that he was alive once without the law. Does that mean the law wasn’t there? No, it had been around for thousands of years. Paul was raised in the Jewish culture. He was circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil 3:5). His Jewish parents taught him the law from the time he was a little child. What does it mean then, that he was ‘without the law?’ It simply means that he didn’t have a full inner understanding of the law. And because of that his sin was not counted against him.
Sin is not imputed (counted) when there is no law – Romans 5:13
So, although Paul was a sinner from birth (as we all are) he was not spiritually dead (separated from God) because God did not count his sin against him. But one day his mind finally developed to a full understanding of the what was right and wrong. At that moment his sin was not just a knee jerk reaction of the flesh, but a deliberate decision against what he knew better.
Adam sinned in the same way. Although he did not know good and evil, he did know that he was forbidden to eat from that tree. With full knowledge that it was forbidden, he broke the commandment. He transgressed.
The general public understands this to a certain extent. We refer to an ‘age of innocence.’ Many of us remember when we lived in that age of innocence and understand how things are different now. In a world that was once hazy, everything now seems to become crisp and clear. Our minds have developed and formed. There is that certain day when a sort of evil creeps in. We know it’s wrong, but we do it anyway. We have at that moment hit the age of accountability.
When that is, I don’t know. I would not venture to guess. For those who’s minds are quick to develop, the age could be quite young, but for those who progress slowly (by no fault of their own), it could be later. All people are held accountable for what they know, and nothing more. “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
And you and I, even though we know better, have chosen evil rather than good, and justice demands that we are punished. But God is merciful and desires that none should perish. So God sent His Son to pay the price for our sins. He died in our place so our sins could be forever taken away. Those that receive Him, to them he gives the power to become the sons and daughters of God. These are the ones that will inherit eternal life and live forever with Him who is perfectly good. Praise God!
1- Some people would say then, “Wouldn’t it be better, than, to bury our heads in the dirt? For the more we know, the more we are responsible.”
It is true that the more you know, the more you are responsible. Jesus said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” But to think that knowledge is a liability is asinine! Every good thing that we have is because of an increase in knowledge. If your goal is to be a selfish sinner, than yes, it’s better to bury your head in the dirt. But if your desire is to please God and be a blessing to the world, than knowledge is a priceless gem. It’s a great honor to know God and to know His ways. Knowledge is a privilege that comes with it’s own responsibility. How is that hard to understand? Drivers get pulled over by police officers when they speed, but does that mean you would give up the knowledge to drive? Crazy.
2- Some people might ask in connection with this, “What of people who have never heard about Jesus? Do they go to Hell? Are they accountable to receive Him, even if they have no knowledge of Him?”
This is silly, and there are many people that give silly answers. Is God truly going to condemn someone to an everlasting Hell because they didn’t receive a Savior that they have never heard of? What? Will not the Judge of all the Earth do right? No, God is not going to condemn someone for that. The answer for this question is found in the story of Cornelius (Acts 10-11). Cornelius is a man who did not received Jesus, but yet his prayers came up for a memorial before God (Acts 10:4). Jesus had come, died, and rose from the dead. How could Cornelius’ prayers be a memorial when they weren’t offered in Jesus name? The answer is that Cornelius was operating in the light that he had. If he rejected Jesus when he had heard about Him and tried to continue to offer prayers as he had done before, they would have not be received as before. The opposite would be true. God would have been utterly repulsed by the prayers of a man who rejected the sacrifice of His Son.
There is a lot to be considered in this case. But if the gospel never came to Cornelius, is it realistic to think that God would condemn a man who’s prayers and alms came up before Him as a memorial? Could Cornelius be held accountable for what he genuinely didn’t know? Of course not. But even so, most people are not like Cornelius. Most disobey even the little light that they have. This is why it is so important for us to continue to spread the gospel all over the world. God is merciful and wishes no one to perish. His Son can bring forgiveness even to those that have been very disobedient.